One of my biggest pet peeves in the workplace—that is, when I’ve been in a workplace, which thankfully hasn’t been that often—is when managers at any level discriminate against single people. “Oh, so-and-so can manage this project,” a manager will say. “S/he doesn’t need to get home to anyone.” (Yes, I’ve heard that. You probably have, too.)
You might say, but Bethanne, you are not single. You are the most married of married persons who ever got married. And it’s true. I’ve been married for decades to my college boyfriend, and with any luck we’ll get a few more decades. We also have two children, and they often necessitated my leaving early from work to pick them up from school and sitters and activities.
But that doesn’t mean I believe that my time is more precious or valuable than that of people without partners or offspring. It is not. We all have different things going on in our lives. An unmarried person might be caring for a parent, actively looking for love, or using her time to help others as a volunteer. Or—wait for it—she might simply be drinking wine and searching Netflix.
Whatever we choose to do with our time away from work is our choice. Which is why I’m so happy that this week Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up has made its way into the world, a novel about a woman who is unattached and child-free and doesn’t want to make the same choices as everyone around her does, but isn’t sure how to communicate her deepest desires to any of them.
Attenberg’s protagonist, Andrea Bern, has a complicated backstory; we learn about it through chapters that expand and retract, much like a Jacob’s Ladder toy. This is, counterintuitively, the best way to understand Andrea’s life in feminist terms. Instead of viewing her as a responsible adult (she does, after all, have a steady job as a graphic artist, friends, a busy life), Attenberg’s narrative technique reminds us again and again of Andrea’s jazz musician/junkie father, dead of an overdose when she was 13; her “activist” mother, dependent on a series of creepy men; her shining star of a brother, now tethered to earth in New Hampshire with a mortally ill child. When it comes to grown-up choices, Andrea hasn’t had the best or happiest examples.
Her peers don’t offer great options, either. Indigo, Andrea’s closest friend, has a bourgeois-bohemian wedding and a perfect little boy—but winds up divorced very early. “I would have called a totally different ending to their story,” Andrea says. “Divorce, perhaps, but ten years down the road, another child or two between them.” For a few chapters her old friend Matthew seems like a possible mate, until he shows his hand as a person willing to accept charity. A few of these encounters sound madcap, but Attenberg has her material well in hand. She’s not crafting a version of “Sex and the City;” she’s illustrating how tough Andrea’s choices are, how difficult it is to be on one’s own at midlife—no more, no less difficult than it is to be in a couple or family situation.
That’s when the author throws a hardball at her character. Andrea has been trying to forget about the bad, sad old days after her father’s death, when her mother organized group suppers to raise enough money to keep her and her children in their three-bedroom rent-stabilized apartment. More than one of the men who shelled out $5 or $10 for these meals of stew and whatever wine was available tried to grope the pubescent Andrea; her memories start with a sentence or two and progress to real horror (that’s not even a spoiler; mix wine, middleaged men, and a very young woman and the conclusion is sadly inescapable).
What can’t be spoiled is how Andrea takes the stuff of her life and decides to take it in hand, to really face what is in front of her. She misses making art. She doesn’t want a husband, or even a live-in partner. She doesn’t want children. However, that doesn’t mean she can’t be engaged in the lives of those she loves most. It doesn’t mean she can’t be engaged in her own life.
And there, finally, we have the purpose of this book, one so fast and funny that you’ll find yourself going back to certain sections to see what you’ve missed, because Attenberg peppers every page with terrific descriptions and observations: “The honeymoon is over, I think. But at least it lasted longer than usual and I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.” All Grown Up shows us that Gen-Xers really do come of age, even if they take a bit more time to do so than their forebears. It’s wholly within their purview to remain single, child-free, and drinking wine/watching Netflix. How Andrea Bern spends her time is just as interesting, important, and part of life as any married person’s time. The sooner we all understand that, the better off we all will be.
Bethanne Patrick is the Co-Executive Editor for ROAR, a position she has been training for since childhood, when she organized games of “newsroom” in her basement, and always made the assignments. When she’s not emailing Sarah and Jeet, she can be found reviewing books for The Washington Post and NPR, acting as a contributing editor at Lit Hub, and working on her novel. Just kidding–she’s usually reading, which is why she is also the Books & Media editor for ROAR. Patrick is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.